Reading the Tea Leaves

Anti-Trump protest. St. Paul. 2007.

Watching the pullulating weirdness of the Trump Administration often makes one feel like one of those Kremlin watchers from the 1980s, trying to read the tea leaves to get a picture of what’s going on inside. This may seem a strange comparison, given the fact that the Kremlin of old tended to do a pretty good job of information control, while the Trump team leaks information like a sieve.

Much of this has to do with the change in the ecology of information more generally. The security types of the USSR didn’t have to deal with the vagaries of the Internet as a medium for the distribution of sensitive information. The problem with working out what’s going on in the Trump Administration is not so much the paucity of sources but rather their volume and variety.

Take, for instance, the reports that circulated about Mr. Trump’s post-election conversation with Vladimir Putin. For reasons that wouldn’t need explaining to anyone with a modicum of sense, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy team had advised (and by advised I mean written in all capital letters in the pre-call briefing papers) that under no circumstances should Mr. Trump congratulate Mr. Putin on his victory. It is unclear whether this instruction tweaked Mr. Trump’s contrarian streak, or whether (as is his won’t) his simply didn’t read it.

In any case, congratulations were offered in short order. No mention was made of the poisoning of a noted Russian dissident and his daughter in the UK, or that the nerve agent used to do so was not the kind of thing that simply be purchased at Spies-R-Us. Why destroy the atmosphere of pleasant bonhomie between the world’s leading authoritarian kleptocrat and a guy who would like nothing better than to follow his example?

Aside from the kind of speculations that this might engender about the state of mind of the Commander-in-Chief himself, it also makes one wonder who exactly is holding the tiller at this point. This week has seen some fairly high profile changes in the US government’s foreign policy personnel. Rex Tillerson departed, apparently alerted to his firing by a series of tweets fired off in the wee hours of the morning about his successor. Given that he had referred to the president as a “moron,” it was a foregone conclusion that he was not long for his job. In fact, he hung on for quite a long time, probably due to some quixotic inclination on Mr. Trump’s part not to appear to be as vindictive as everyone knows that he is.

Mr. Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, of whom it can at least be said he knows where the bodies are buried (since he and his staff buried them). A collateral effect of this was the appointment of Gina Haspel as the first woman director of the CIA. This was touted as a blow struck for women’s rights, although Ms. Haspel’s extensive involvement with torture at CIA black sites established her bona fides in a way that her gender could neither mar nor mend.

Also out this week was Mr. Trump’s national security advisor H. R. McMaster, yet another of those putative “adults in the room” who were supposed to rein in the president’s more unfortunate inclinations. His replacement, John Bolton, is one of those figures who manages to continue to obtain positions in government even though nobody really takes his ideas very seriously. It is a mark of the regard in which he is generally held even by people on his own end of the political spectrum, that during the era of Bush the Younger he was relegated to the position of ambassador to the United Nations, a body about whose doings and deliberations the president (and Republicans generally) simply do not care.

Mr. Trump is also rumoured to be preparing for life after the departure of General John Kelly and toying with the idea of simply dispensing with the position of chief of staff altogether. This makes a certain kind of sense, given Mr. Trump’s well-known disinclination to tolerate gainsaying of any kind. Still, it adds still more to the general air of randomness and disorganization that are the hallmarks of the Trump presidency.

Also roiling the media environment these days is the expansion of Mr. Trump’s woman problems. Stormy Daniels doesn’t seem to be going away. Rather, even more of Mr. Trump’s extramarital escapades have been coming to light in the form of stories (first published in the New Yorker last month) of an affair involving Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year. Mr. Trump and his people have kept mum on the underlying substance of the stories, focusing instead on the enforcement of NDAs against Ms. Daniels and Ms. McDougal. Of course, the very existence of said NDAs lends a certain credence to what they have to say, but given the colonization of the political public sphere by the politics of the spectacle, such minutiae may be expected to evaporate in time.

Mr. Trump also took time to slap $60 billion in tariffs on imports from China, as well as instituting his long-mooted tariffs on steel and aluminium imports. The point of the latter was made clear when Mr. Trump exempted Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and most of the other countries from which the United States gets the bulk of its imports of these metals. No, the point of the whole exercise was to teach the Chinese that the United States would no longer be trifled with. And if the resultant trade war (the likelihood of which was signaled by steep drops in most of the major stock indexes in the of the tariff announcements) predominantly damages the economic prospects of Mr. Trump’s supporters in the lower reaches of the income distribution, at least these latter can comfort themselves that the balance of the world is being righted. It is, after all, better to be cuckolded by people like oneself than by foreigners.

While much attention was being devoted to these aspects of the administration’s obscene spectacle, a budget bill was wending its way through the legislative process. And by wending its way I mean that a document comprising more than 2,200 pages was shotgunned through Congress with barely 48 hours from its first presentation to final passage. Gone are the days when those donning the mantle of fiscal conservatism would piously warn that America was broke and that the only thing that might keep her from plunging off a fiscal cliff was austerity. With a white man ensconced at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the time is ripe for a spending spree.

Among the items included in this jubilee was some $1.6 billion for Mr. Trump’s vanity wall on the Mexican border. No mention is being made of how this cost will be defrayed by the Mexican government, as Mr. Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail, but given the fact that most of the legislators who signed off of the budget hadn’t had time to read any significant part of it, it is hardly surprising that this was one of many details to fall by the wayside. This was a process that had to be undertaken quickly, both to avert the threat of a government shutdown and to prevent people who might quibble with the content of the budget from having time and space in which to oppose it. It reminded one of a small child trying to swallow something quickly so as not to find out how bad it tastes.

One thing that was left unaddressed in the whole process was DACA. Mr. Trump was quick to let it be known that he might not sign the bill if some action was not taken in this regard, but this was more a matter of trying to shift blame for events to come onto the Democrats than any sort of serious political statement. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, made it clear that Mr. Trump would be signing the bill. Some might be confused by this since no one actually believes that Mr. Trump cares about the fate of Dreamers and a large proportion of his supporters think that they are actually preventing decent (white) Americans from getting jobs. But this was simply a matter of saying something so that one’s more “intellectual” supporters could later point to its having being said in discussions with those so burdened by sentimentality as to care about the fate of non-citizens.

All in all, it was about par for the course for this administration. The Mueller investigation continued apace, despite the clean bill of health vis á vis Russian collusion extended to Mr. Trump by the Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and despite Mr. Trump’s thinly veiled threats to fire the special prosecutor. Republican members of Congress made the usual noises about the dire consequences that would ensue of Mr. Mueller were fired, hoping against hope that they would not later have to explain to the media why they never acted on them.

The chattering classes continued in their attempts to discover the tipping point of outrage after which American voters will finally realize the threat the Mr. Trump poses to the country. American politics continued as a relation between images rather than as a relation between people, while the explosions and mayhem around the globe that are the surplus product of these processes faded to background static in the obscene theatrics of American politics.

Photograph courtesy of Fibonacci Blue. Published under a Creative Commons license.